What to See at Performa 17

Highlights from the 2017 edition of New York City’s premiere performance-art festival.

Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg is on a mission to find every possible way to shatter the boundary between art and life. For the 2017 edition of the performance-art biennial, she brought together architects, painters, video artists, photographers, musicians, dancers, and writers for a cross-disciplinary series of events throughout New York City. Most of the work was commissioned for Performa or otherwise supported from inception to presentation. A day after a mass killing shook downtown Manhattan, the first performances responded to the current American political climate with radical, provocative, and imaginative works.

“I just felt such a need for activism and [to show] work that is profound and aesthetically powerful,” said Goldberg at the premiere of a new work by Barbara Kruger. “How do we transform activism into something visual—that’s wonderful for the eyes, but also for the brain and the heart? We’ve been thinking about what artists can say in these shocking times, but we’re still hungry for something beautiful.”

Here are a few highlights from this year’s program, which run through Nov. 19 in various locations around New York.

Rehearsal view of "Imitation of Lives" (2017) by Jimmy Roberts. (Photo: Courtesy the artist, Performa, The Glass House)

The politically shaped dynamics between bodies and space are at the core of a group of performances at the biennial that play on the ways architecture can be reinvented through movement. Jimmy Robert’s performance at Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, New York, explores the question of black representation. Canadian architect François Dallegret’s visionary inflatable Environment Bubble, at Central Park’s mineral springs hosts daily dance workshops. A forthcoming Performa publication, Bodyspacemotionthings, will chronicle how design studios—including the likes of Ant Farm, Didier Faustino, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, OMA, and Raumlabor—have incorporated performance into their work.

"Untitled (Skate)" (2017) by Barbara Kruger. (Photo: Paula Court)

Dadaism informs a series of works by Barbara Kruger placed around the city. The artist, who also designed Performa’s red-and-black logo, has plastered her signature provocative slogans across a Lower East Side skate park, buses, Metrocards, and a gift shop at the Biennial Hub, where tickets to Performa events are sold. The artist has also created her first live performance, “Untitled (The Drop)” at the Hub, where crowds of people wait in line to access the artist’s merchandise—an echo of the queues that form outside the retail location of skateboard fashion standby Supreme, whose logo bears a more than passing resemblance to Kreuger’s work.

"Black Paper" (2017) by Teju Cole.

Writer and photographer Teju Cole’s “Black Paper” reacts to last year’s U.S. election with a multimedia presentation focused on music. Wangechi Mutu created an immersive experience with painting, sculpture, and performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the Harlem Parish artist Julie Mehretu and composer Jason Moran have created an audiovisual symphony reflecting their distress about the election.

"Red Winter in Gugulethu" (2016) by Kemang Wa Lehulere. (Photo: Courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town, and Johannesburg)

The curatorial team has chosen to focus on South Africa for the “Pavilions Without Walls” series, highlighting work from specific countries. Kemang Wa Lehulere’s sonic sculpture “I Cut My Skin to Release the Splinter” features a group of musicians playing artist-made “machines.” Photographer Zanele Muholi is installing an LGBTQ-rights activism station at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. And William Kentridge is creating a performance based on Kurt Schwitters’s 1932 sound poem Ursonate at the Harlem Parish.

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